You may have heard of the popular Twitter account Very British Problems , well a TV series of the same name aired for the first time last week and became an instant success with millions tuning in to giggle and nod along to the many idiosyncrasies that only Brits would fully understand. I watched it in the company of my neighbor and a house guest and although in many respects we are as different as chalk and cheese, all three of us nodded away in recognition at the British traits mentioned on the programme, such as never admitting to not remembering the name of the person you are speaking to (it would be far too rude and embarrassing to ask “what was your name again?” after you’ve known them for over 10 minutes!) or feeling slightly uncomfortable when friends open your fridge.
Ok I didn’t actually get the fridge issue. I think if I’m comfortable enough to have you in my home, then you’re more than welcome to help yourselves to the contents of my kitchen, in fact I’d welcome it if it means I don’t have to get up and wait on you. Knock yourself out and whilst you’re at it, make me a cuppa too! Now I don’t know if James Cordon whinging about not liking guests in his fridge was typically British or that I am not particularly British, in that I am black-British, but being comfortable enough to grab yourself a drink and help yourself to a sandwich in my home is something that makes me all warm and fuzzy inside rather than filling me with (pent up, passive-aggressive, silent) British rage. It means people feel comfortable in my home and who could want for anything more?
I grew up in a multi ethnic home where three cultures, Dominican, Nigerian and British collided with sometimes contradictory yet interesting consequences. Tea was served in pretty chinaware complete with sugar cubes and cream to our elders, English breakfasts with a side of plantain and hard dough bread was the norm on weekends and school revision sessions at my house meant my mum turning up with bubbling casserole dishes full of macaroni cheese accompanied jugs of sarsaparilla. If you came to my house, no matter the time or the lack of prior notice, the chances are you would be fed and welcomed with open arms.
The only other culture I’ve experienced to date where food and hospitality has matched my mum’s is in China. Whether I was out with a group of students or my peers, the host would feed us until our sides were bulging and empty plates were a sign that we hadn’t been fed enough which would be a slap in the face to the host. That wasn’t a problem though, portions were so big that we were forever bringing food home to be warmed up the next day for lunch. As much as this lined up well with my own upbringing, there were still cultural etiquette rules to learn. For instance, so as not to piss off your host country, it was wise to accept all invitations even when you knew full well you wouldn’t be able to attend. This was something I struggled with ethically as I didn’t want people to waste money preparing for events that I would never make, but both my western and Chinese colleagues argued it was very important in order for the host to ‘save face’ – a concept that I learned was of immense importance in the Chinese culture.
But don’t think that learning one Asian culture means you’re ok on cultural etiquette in surrounding countries – oh no! Because in Japan for example, it would be extremely rude to not show up to an event or booking, for example a restaurant, without letting them know you need to cancel. Luckily the Kyoto Convention & Visitors Bureau has released an infographic outlining the ‘akimahen’, or the ‘do’s and don’ts’ for a visit to the city of Kyoto which is aimed at travellers. It aims to prevent us from making cultural faux pas’ some of which could lead to quite steep fines. I’ve added the inforgraphic below because it’s actually quite useful and included things I’d never thought about, such as cycling under the influence of alcohol – though does anyone actually do this? Meh!
Have you come across any interesting cultural norms which differed from your own in your travels? I’d love to hear about them so drop me a comment!